Avatar photo Matt Englar-Carlson 5 min READ November 8th, 2023

Positive Masculinity is what we need to be talking about now


By Prof Matt Englar-Carlson

As a child of the 70’s, I had a sense that my boyhood was a slightly different world than my father’s had been. And now as the father of a teenager, I know that his boyhood is different than mine.

Learning about masculinity can be a funny thing. It is in the air all around us, but rarely is direct attention or instruction drawn towards it as an actual “thing” to consider and reflect upon. My research with men of all ages has taught me that very few of them have reflected upon what masculinity means to them.  It is something that they know, but don’t really know. As a boy, like countless other boys, I learned about masculinity by observation, social pressure, and through direct action- often at the end of an insult or insinuation, or by observing – or being the one directing – a comment or putdown towards another.

Rules of masculinity are all around us, yet they are context dependent- meaning that my rural, primarily White community reinforced notions of masculinity that were a bit different from the more racially diverse urban settings less than an hour away from my home. Like most boys and men, I understood what not to do as a male in certain contexts. In fact there were more rules about what NOT to do as compared to what to do. I also understood that these notions had a certain amount of plasticity to them – even though I knew that I should not cry, tears often formed in my eyes as I could not really control them. Rarely did I encounter boys or men who were the rigid masculine caricatures that I saw on television, typically boys and men had a bit more complexity to them. In that sense, masculinity for many men was multi-dimensional as both aspirational and inspirational. No one ever talked about this stuff in public around me, but I had already had the sense the rules of masculinity where incomplete and in many cases flat out wrong. My private and intimate conversations with my male friends were my evidence, and yet so many rules and restrictions about men were omnipresent and constantly reinforced.

Learning about the psychology of men in graduate school was a true change point in my life. Scholarship in the field made sense to me, and digging deeper into men’s lives and experiences provided the mirror to better understand myself and the men around me. The psychology of men and masculinities helped me see my male clients as male and that this meant something unique to how they experienced the world and psychotherapy itself.  I was obsessed with reading all of the research I could find from across the globe.

My knowledge based deepened, and I noticed that like much of the existing psychology scholarship, the focus in the psychology of men was on distress, pathology, and dysfunction. Our knowledge base was skewed towards negative traits and functioning of men. I certainly understood the masculinity literature and could filter my life through it, but it seemed to only be part of the story of the men that I knew personally and professionally, and over time I noticed that I had a harder time finding myself in the literature.

I knew that men experienced both the dark aspects of masculinity- rigidity, pain, and distress associated with denying “unmasculine” traits and rewarding anger, violence, and destructive habits- but as men they also experienced or strove towards the healthy aspects as well. These healthy aspects seemed associated with growth-oriented relationships with others as a father, partner, or friend, community building notions of service and provision towards the greater good, and ideas around personal and social responsibility. As a clinician, these were the areas I focused on since they reflected the aspect of men’s lives that my clients cared about the most. My clients often expressed shame and deficiency around the darker side of masculinity, yet they shared more hope and motivation around notions of the men they wanted to be. They were motivated by health, and discouraged by distress. Growth and change conversations were inspired by the ideas of the men they could be – akin to what Davies, Shen-Miller, and Isacco (2010) called possible masculinities.

In no way is being male a psychological problem, but the expression of some male roles that encourage shame, aggression, dominance, and indifference often brew psychological problems on cultural and individual levels. For me, this is where positive masculinity emerges. It is about contrasting alignment to rigid notions of masculinity, and allowing the space for men to refine and define what being a man means to them. Defining positive masculinity can be difficult, and I hesitate to fully define it in terms of traits because of the variation in socialization and contextual factors, but term like healthy, prosocial, adaptive, and socially responsible are often in the definitional mix.

Positive masculinity is a counterbalance to shame (truly, the core emotion for understanding men), offering growth and encouragement to men by focusing attention on what is possible and healthy in the lives of men. Importantly, positive masculinity can be beacon for men to strive towards: “As a man, what are you moving towards, and how do you want to contribute?” At a time of so much global transformation around gender and social roles, we need professionals who are able to help men navigate this changing world.

This article was first published for the Male Psychology Network in 2018